Nobody expected the Browns to reach their bye week at 4-0. Not with the Cowboys, Steelers and a trip to Baltimore on the schedule.
But with the playoffs the expected destination, 3-1 seemed probable. Surely, 2-2 was the worst-case scenario.
Instead, the Browns stumbled into the bye 1-3 after a shocking and humbling 0-3 start.
The victory in Cincinnati finally brought smiles within the locker room, but little joy to the rest of Browns Town, which remains obsessed with the shortcomings of coach Romeo Crennel and quarterback Derek Anderson. As for the front office and Crennel, who remain committed to Anderson, relief was the dominant emotion.
“This isn’t the start that we wanted, but at the bye we are going in with better momentum,” general manager Phil Savage said.
They’re no longer winless, but they aren’t out of the woods, either.
The schedule is extremely difficult, starting with a visit from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants (4-0) next Monday.
A Cleveland offense struggling with injuries and yet to regain its high-flying form of 2007 must face six of the seven top-ranked defenses.
And the squad of mostly unproven players has four more prime-time games to test its mettle.
All as the Browns struggle to climb out of a deep hole and back into contention in the AFC North.
“There’s a degree of realism, that this 2008 Cleveland Browns team has a long way to go,” Crennel said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. I think the team understands that. We can’t take anything for granted. We have to work doubly hard.”
Five things necessary for a turnaround
The Browns will likely need eight wins in their remaining 12 games to have any shot at the playoffs, which remain the goal. Here’s one man’s plan to get there:
1. Better play at QB
No matter the name on the jersey — Anderson or Quinn — the offense must get more production from the guy taking the snaps. The quarterback always gets too much blame and too much credit, but he is the guy who makes the offense go — or stop.
Anderson got votes of confidence from Savage and Crennel following the win over the Bengals, but his hold on the job is tenuous. Anderson ranks 32nd in quarterback rating and has completed just 49.6 percent of his passes.
He hasn’t gotten much help from his teammates or coaches — the Browns appear committed to removing some of the burden by running more — but the quarterback must make some big throws on third down.
“We feel like we have enough good players, enough people around him and that he’s a good enough talent with his ability that we’re going to pull out of this and have our best football out in front of us here with him as the quarterback,” Savage said.
2. Find the explosion
Last year the offense provided highlight-reel material by the foot. Nearly every game was filled with big plays: Braylon Edwards leaping for a touchdown, Kellen Winslow contorting his body for an improbable catch over the middle, Joshua Cribbs sprinting the length of the field with a kick return, Jamal Lewis rumbling 60 yards for a touchdown.
The explosions have been missing this year.
The Browns have just three plays of 20 yards or more — Lewis ran for 24, Jerome Harrison took a dump-off 23 and Winslow caught a 20-yarder. That means the offense must be more consistent and string together a longer series of positive plays to reach the end zone.
Savage conceded last week that the dynamics of the offense have changed and that it might have to rely on gimmicky plays — specially designed packages for Cribbs and Harrison — to provide the spark.
It would also be nice if Edwards and Winslow returned to their old form.
“It’s not last year,” Anderson said. “We realize that and we’re adjusting to that.”
3. Get Wimbley going
Outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley finally showed up in the win over Cincinnati. He had a sack, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. The breakthrough followed three games in which he made no impact, along with no sacks, one pressure and nine tackles.
Wimbley is a physical specimen, with muscles upon muscles and a quickness rare in a man 6-foot-3, 255 pounds. But something’s been missing.
The coaches insist it’s not effort, but he can’t be counted on to consistently bother the quarterback. His pass-rush repertoire is limited.
“I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s going to be able to pass rush a left tackle 55 plays in a row and get there that often,” Savage said. “We need to do some things to help create some things for Kamerion.”
That means defensive coordinator Mel Tucker must develop a scheme to get Wimbley matched up against a tight end or running back to give him an edge.
4. Return to health
Since the preseason the Browns have been waiting for their walking wounded to return to the field and to form. After the bye, they should be granted their wish.
They have to make it count.
Receiver Donte Stallworth (quadriceps) is expected to make his debut against the Giants, and while he won’t be a cure-all for an underachieving offense, he should provide an underneath threat that’s been missing. That should mean plenty of opportunities for Stallworth or fewer double teams for Edwards.
Ryan Tucker is also due back following a broken hip in the offseason. He can play guard or tackle, so the coaching staff must decide where he fits best. The presumption is he’ll replace Kevin Shaffer at right tackle, joining right guard Rex Hadnot as a hard-nosed, pile-moving tandem.
Finally there’s Cribbs, the Pro Bowl kick returner. He missed the opener with a high ankle sprain, then returned at far less than 100 percent. He expects to be close to perfect for the Giants.
“It’s time to make my individual runs at individual goals,” he said. “I’m ready to get back on pace.”
It’s clearly too early to call the season hopeless, but a look at the remaining schedule tests even the most bright-eyed optimist. The league’s last unbeatens — Giants and Titans — are both on the docket.
If the rest of the games were played today, the Browns would likely be a favorite just twice — when they host Houston in November and Cincinnati in December. That leaves 10 games where the experts in Las Vegas predict more failure.
So if the Browns are going to make anything of this season, they will have to do it against some long odds. That requires greater commitment, better coaching and an overall improved performance.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.